Tuesday, October 21, 2008

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian - Kurt Vonnegut

Published in 1999, two years after his final novel Timequake, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is more of an essay by Kurt Vonnegut than a book. When I took it out of the library, I expected an interview with Kevorkian or an impassioned defense of euthanasia. This is neither. Its 78 pages can be read in probably 30-45 minutes. It consists of an introduction, which reveals Vonnegut's methodology for the piece, and the essay itself, which is comprised of a dozen or so interviews with recent deaths of lesser-known folk showing up in the obituary column of The New York Times and more famous celebrities from the past like William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton and Adolf Hitler and Isaac Asimov and Clarence Darrow. Vonnegut is induced into having near-death experiences by Jack Kevorkian in Huntsville, Texas, and reports back on the experience of being half dead and interviewing these people in the tunnel towards the Pearly Gates. There is no hell. St. Peter guards the gates and begins to get upset by all of this near-death visiting.

Each little chapter in the essay itself, usually between 1 and 3 pages, is, I believe, a report that Vonnegut delivered for New York City's NPR affiliate, WNYC. He exists as a character in this work in the guise of a reporter. Some of them are very funny. The interview with Peter Pellegrino, hot air balloon enthusiast, is my personal favorite. There is also a critique by a recently executed woman in Texas of the Governor at the time who presciently states, "She said that was too bad [that there was no Hell] because she would be glad to go to Hell if only she could take the Governor of Texas with her. 'He's a murderer, too, said Carla Faye. 'He murdered me.'" (70). This in 1998 or 1999.

All of the proceeds of this book went to the WNYC station so it was great for Vonnegut to do this as his own, probably very lucrative pledge drive. He does make a compelling statement about the nature of public radio: "WNYC enhances the informed wit and wisdom of its community and mine. It does what no commercial radio or TV station can afford to do anymore. WNYC satisfies the people's right to know--as contrasted with, as abject slaves of high-roller publicists and advertisers, keeping the public vacantly diverted and entertained." (12) While I support the efforts of public radio, I have never donated to a pledge drive and God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian might be a good way to support that NYC-affiliate station, but it comes at quite a high price for such a short book. That said, if you need to kill a half hour in a library or at your local massive bookstore, this would not be a bad thing to separate from the chaff. It's a cool idea for an essay and I almost wish Vonnegut had developed it further, but it's good the way it is, as an entertaining (and humanizing) little truc.

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